It's Not Your Kid, It's You, Okay?


What, you mean a parenting book called How Not to F*** Them Up is controversial?

Oliver James isn’t necessarily a familiar name on our side of the pond, but he’s a well-known talking head in the UK, where bestselling books like Britain on the Couch and Affluism, along with all-media ubiquity, have made him something of a pop-psych celebrity. How Not to F*** Them Up, given its inflammatory title (even if it is derived from a Larkin poem) seems poised to sell, too. And, as anything that hints at parenting criticism does, stir up controversy.

James is strongly in the “nurture” camp and his book stresses the importance of early childhood. Beyond that, his advice is Mom: Know Thyself. Summarizes the Times UK,

Using solid scientific research, mostly based on the theories of a British psychoanalyst and psychologist called Joan Raphael-Leff, James divides mothers of small children into three categories – the organiser, the hugger and the flexi-mum. How well you respond to your baby depends on how well you understand yourself. The organiser is the kind of mother to adopt [organized methods], to want the baby to adapt to her, the hugger is totally baby-focused to the exclusion of others and the flexi-mum, roughly half of mothers, a combination of the two and the most likely to escape depression. James tries hard to refrain from presenting a “right” and “wrong” way, although he does state the “hugger” is probably best equipped to meet the needs of the under-threes. All the stereotypes – because, let’s be honest, that is what they are – have pros and cons.

James instructs the modern parent to identify her type rather than fight it, and proceed accordingly.

James is also adamantly opposed to disciplinary measures like the Supernanny’s beloved time-outs, terming a child “naughty,” and rigid structuring generally – points which have been argued before. Things get dicey when James gets into care-giving. He is adamant that very young children “need to be in the presence of a responsive, loving adult at all times in order to thrive.” A mother is most desirable, and if she’s not around, the next best thing is father, then grandmother, then full-time nanny, then babysitter, and last of all, day care.

That’s all very easy to say, but to a mother already reeling from guilt and a sense of societal inadequacy, hardly helpful. It’s also, as Louise Carpenter, author of the piece in the Times points out, almost shockingly oblivious to those women without options: “poor ones don’t seem to be included.” Adds Carpenter,

Any stress in the last trimester of pregnancy, through work or life demands, raises the stress hormone cortisol in the unborn child, potentially affecting its behaviour for a long time after birth. Women who read inherent genetic characteristics into their “lively” baby such as the need for interaction are self-deceiving and projecting their own needs. If a toddler is having a hissy fit, it is because she is not getting what she needs from “YOU!” (the young child, unable to make sense of itself, is never to blame) and when pregnant mothers worry about the forthcoming birth, what they are often really worrying about is the mothering period that what will follow it. Oh, OK then.

In short, Carpenter, a mother, says, it makes you feel bad. And as much as anything, whatever his intentions, James is playing on that guilt and on that fear. The book makes no bones about applying to anyone other than a relatively affluent population of helicopter parents (his commercial base, after all) and the baldness of the title suggests an authority that makes the unmeetable expectations all the more painful. If these theories were theoretical, it would be one thing. But this is a how-to book, for the modern parent, by a preeminent authority on…human behavior. The fact that James is a man is not the greatest of the book’s points of contention – he claims the focus is on mothers simply because, realistically, they end up doing the vast majority of parenting – but it’s not a small thing when one considers the spirit in which such high-handed advice is likely to be received by a real-life, non-theoretical mother. But no matter how bad, or how angry, the book makes you feel, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. After you’ve irredeemably fucked them up, there’ll be James’ upcoming book: Love Bombing, “which explores proven techniques of how parents can reverse any damage, perceived or real, done to their children.”

Would You Pass The Good Mother Test? [TimesUK]
Naughty Children? Blame Mothers, Says Oliver James [Telegraph]

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